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The "Road to Stockholm" - Report on the 28th Hermann Staudinger Lecture with Prof. Louis J Ignarro

Ellen McAllister, PhD student at the BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies, about the 28th Hermann Staudinger Lecture with Professor Louis J. Ignarro.
The "Road to Stockholm" - Report on the 28th Hermann Staudinger Lecture with Prof. Louis J Ignarro

Photo: FRIAS

On November 5, 2019, the Hermann Staudinger Lecture took place for the 28th time: Louis J. Ignarro, professor emeritus of pharmacology at the UCLA's school and Noble prize winner of 1998, presented his "Road to Stockholm". Part of the audience was Ellen McAllister, PhD student at the BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies. In this guest contribution, she shares her experience of the lecture.

On a cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon, staff and students gathered in the anatomy lecture hall to witness the annual Staudinger Lecture. This year marks the 28th edition of the FRIAS series of talks given by Nobel prize-winning speakers, with Prof. Louis J Ignarro from UCLA presenting his “Road to Stockholm,” giving an overview of a lifetime’s research in just under an hour.

The presentation began with Ignarro saying that he wouldn’t be giving a “science talk” rather something that “even his mother could understand.” And this he delivered, taking us on a journey through the discovery of functions of nitric oxide (NO) and its production within the body in a way that everyone could understand.

For Ignarro, the connection to the Nobel prize goes further than just winning it. Alfred Nobel founded the prize in the late 1800s after amassing a great fortune from his inventions, particularly dynamite. In the factories where dynamite was made from nitroglycerin, the workers found that they would have intense migraines when they got to work (not just on Monday mornings, either). On the other hand, workers with angina, or chest pain, actually felt relief from their symptoms at work. People were quick to put two and two together, realising that the volatile gas coming from the production in the factory must be having an effect on the body. It took another hundred years until Prof. Ignarro and his team were able to show what that mechanism was.

A further discovery coming out of the lab of Prof. Ignarro was that NO is a principal signalling molecule mediating erectile function. Building on a question from a Urologist friend, Ignarro was able to show after a couple weeks that NO was indeed the transmitter.

These findings proved to be such a hit that he was able to publish in the New England Journal of Medicine (a big deal, especially for basic medical research) and was then featured on the front page of the New York Times. The journal Science later announced NO as “Molecule of the Year.” After the link between NO as a transmitter involved in penile erection was established, it wasn’t long before a drug came on the market making use of this knowledge. Viagra was first marketed in March 1998, and it was announced (by the older men of the Nobel committee) in October 1998 that Ignarro had won (along with 2 others) the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine!

 A humble, friendly and dedicated man, Prof. Ignarro has received many accolades during his 40+ year career, including awards for outstanding teaching. He has an impressive list of over 500 publications, four of which already during his PhD studies. His research career was highlighted by challenging what was known at the time and thinking outside the box, traits that certainly helped to win the Nobel Prize. 

Prof. Ignarro advocates a lifestyle of healthy eating (lots of fruit and vegetables) and exercise, in order to increase NO and improve health, especially with aging. He not only says these things, he also is an example of healthy living, having run over 15 marathons (only starting in his 60s!) and being an avid cyclist. The talk was concluded with a photo showing Prof. Ignarro receiving the Nobel prize for NO from King Karl Gustave of Sweden, standing on a carpet inscribed with the letter N inside a bigger O – what a coincidence!

 

Ellen McAllister
PhD student
BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies